Joel Sherman of the New York Post had an interesting feature Saturday on Gregg Jefferies, one of the great woulda-coulda-shoulda stories for Mets fans. The main theme of the story is that a number of Mets veterans now regret the extent of the hazing the team’s hard-living veterans imposed on the high-strung, all-business Jefferies, who lacked the maturity in his early twenties to handle it well. Sherman is a little breezy in casting those 1980s Mets teams as tough places for a rookie to break in: Between 1983 and 1990, the young players to establish themselves as major leaguers with the Mets include Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Lenny Dykstra, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Kevin Mitchell, Rick Aguilera, Randy Myers, and Dave Magadan, among others. But he does capture the extent to which Jefferies, with his personalized training regimen and obsessive concern for his bats, was ahead of his time in terms of the game’s culture.
It’s hard to overstate how excited Mets fans were about Jefferies’ prospects at the time. He was the first player named as Minor League Player of the Year twice by Baseball America (only Andruw Jones has matched this since). He not only batted .353/.401/.549 with 111 RBI and 57 steals in A ball in 1986, while the Mets were rolling to a World Championship — he did so as an 18-year-old switch-hitting shortstop. At AA Jackson the next year, the steals slowed to 26, but he amped up the power, batting .367/.423/.598. He was still a teenager, and went 3 for 6 as a pinch hitter in a brief cup of coffee in September. I’m still somewhat bitter that Davey Johnson left him on the bench in favor of light-hitting veteran Bill Almon as a pinch hitter in the one-run loss on September 30 that mathematically eliminated the Mets.
What really drove the Jefferies hype machine into orbit, however, was the nature of his arrival in late August 1988. The Mets had jumped out to a big lead early in 1988 and just dragged through the summer, their lead dropping to 3 ½ games by August 21 before kicking it back into gear. Jefferies was called up a week into that run, and he went off like a bomb: single and a double his first game, double, triple, and home run his second. In his first thirteen games, he scored 13 runs, drove in ten, batted an otherworldly .462/.500/.962, and cracked 14 extra base hits while striking out just three times. His swing from either side of the plate was one of the most compact, beautiful things you ever saw. He ended up batting .321/.364/.596, the Mets going 22-7 in his appearances, and his batting line projected to a full season of 45 doubles, 11 triples, 37 home runs, and 28 stolen bases. He hit .333 with two doubles and a .438 on base percentage in the Mets’ 7-game loss in the NLCS. In an era when the Mets seemed to be going from one successful prospect to the next, the sky was the limit.
The trouble signs were already there: Jefferies in 1988 had hit a less-impressive .282/.322/.395 at AAA, and his defense at second, short or third was equally bad. The indeterminacy of what position he’d play worked against Jefferies in two ways: It meant that more of the Mets veteran infielders saw him as a threat to their jobs, and the shuffling about the diamond was a constant distraction from establishing himself as a hitter. Only in two years as a first baseman for the Cardinals, for whom he hit .335/.401/.487 and drew twice as many walks as strikeouts, and stole 46 bases in 1993, did Jefferies briefly put it all together.
Johnson had to accept during the 1988 NLCS that Jefferies did not know how to bunt. In fairness, neither did several of those Mets, including Strawberry; Sid Fernandez, who should have been schooled in bunting as a pitcher, was so unaccustomed to being asked to bunt that he once laid a bunt down and ran up the third base line.
Jefferies’ style was outclassed by the patience-and-power game of the mid-to-late 1990s. In a different era, left at one position and tuning out the veterans, it is still not hard to imagine him with a shelf full of batting titles and a plaque in Cooperstown. But, then, baseball is full of woulda-coulda-shouldas.